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I think that most Muscovites who still recognize the name of Alexandra Yablochkina think of her as something of a grandmother figure. Just look at the image on the plaque commemorating the fact that she lived in this building at 4/2 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street from 1906 to 1964. I don’t know about your family, but she looks like a cross among all the grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great aunts in my own maternal line. I have no reason to do this whatsoever, but I always somehow internally acknowledge this plaque when I pass it by, as I often do. I feel like I am in the presence of someone near and dear.
Alexandra Yablochkina (1866-1964) was born into a family of actors in St. Petersburg, but was one of Moscow’s leading actresses for a very long time. She grew up partly in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, where her father performed on stage, and she herself made her acting debut in Tiflis at the age of six. Reaching adulthood, she spent one year, 1885, performing at the Tiflis Theater of Russian Drama. There’s a great little tale that goes with her childhood debut, and I quote it here from the Russian Celebrities website:
“The family’s great friend O.A. Pravdin was staging a show called A Ruined Life, which had a part for a little boy. [Pravdin] gave the role to Alexandra. However, there were problems at the premiere. When she walked out on stage and saw a house full of people the little girl was taken aback and became tongue-tied during a long phrase. She did not lose her wits, however, and blamed the prompter for the problem. Bending over the prompter’s booth, she said, ‘Please do not make noise down there. You only confuse me and I know my role without you.’ She then turned back to the actor on stage with whom she was supposed to speak and, this time, loudly and clearly spoke the difficult phrase from beginning to end. The audience greeted this with laughter and a burst of applause. After the performance a friend said to Alexandra’s mother, ‘Your Vladimir is a fine lad!’ and was amazed to learn that the role of Petya was played by her daughter Sasha, not her son Volodya.”
Yablochkina relocated to Moscow in 1886 and remained there for the rest of her life. She became a star that year when she played the role of Sofya in Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit at the Korsh Theater. She joined the troupe at the Maly Theater in 1888 and remained there until her death. She was obviously a woman of great stability and loyalty. That is also evident in her relationship to an actors’ organization in Moscow that has gone under various names over the decades, but is now called the Actors House. She became its chairwoman in 1915 when it was called the Russian Theater Society. She remained in that position until she died in 1964. By then known as the All-Russia Theater Society, it was then named after her. What we now know as the Moscow Actors House still bears her honorary name today.
Yablochkina performed a staggering number of roles. Russian Wikipedia informs us that she played 22 different roles in just the two-or-so years she spent at the Korsh Theater, from 1886-1888. The Korsh, which was one of Russia’s very few private theaters made its living by putting up new shows all the time. Shows did not run for long, particularly if they didn’t have success. But, surely, preparing for what is an average of 11 new shows per year two seasons in a row must have been an extraordinary way for the young actress to throw herself into her profession. During that brief period she played roles in major works by Moliere, Alexander Ostrovsky, Griboedov, Denis Fonvizin, Alexander Pushkin and others.
She obviously could not keep up a pace like that for her entire life, but the list of productions she performed in at the Maly Theater over a period of 76 years is impressive indeed. The total exceeds 150! I can’t even imagine what kind of life that must have been, averaging two new shows every year for three-quarters of a century! Actually, her last performance took place in 1961 when she was 95 years old. That day she played the role of Miss Crowley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a show that had premiered Dec. 27, 1958.
Another story about another of her debuts – this time in Moscow – provides a nice snapshot in time. I quote this from the same site as above.
“I was to perform in the role of Tatyana in an excerpt from Yevgeny Onegin, Yablochkina reminisced. “When it came time to perform our scene, I began shaking and I sensed that I wanted to run home. Nervousness and fear, I remember well, seized me with such power that I had only one desire – to escape this looming trial. It felt like it would be an execution. I ran to Fedotova [her teacher, and a great actress in her own right] and begged her to let me go home. I told her I did not want to be an actress. Glikeria Nikolaevna understood my frame of mind and calmed me down. Using wise words she cooled my excited state and made me muster my courage. She led me onstage herself. I don’t recall how I spoke my monologue to the end. The curtain dropped and I heard applause. Glikeria Nikolaevna came to me, her face beaming, and said, ‘Good girl, Sanya! You’ve been christened in battle!'”